Aperture Magazine

The magazine of photography and ideas

Vision & Justice: A Curriculum by Hank Willis Thomas

The photographer and multimedia artist shares the books, shows, and films that have shaped his life.

 - May 23, 2016

For Hank Willis Thomas—conceptual photographer and multimedia artist—American commerce is a perpetual source of slogans and spectacles. In his series Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America, 1968–2008, Thomas excised the logos from post-civil-rights-era advertisements for products marketed to African Americans, unveiling an array of stereotypes. Question Bridge: Black Males, an ongoing transmedia project cocreated by Thomas, Chris Johnson, and other artists, is a forum for black men to ask other black men questions about their lives. In Question Bridge: Black Males in America, published by Aperture in 2015, one participant asks, “What is common to all of us that makes us who we are?”

Photographer unknown, James Baldwin Sitting Smoking a Cigarette, February 5, 1963

Photographer unknown, James Baldwin Sitting Smoking a Cigarette, February 5, 1963 © Bettmann/CORBIS

Deborah Willis, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present, 2000

This was my mother’s fifteenth book looking at the experiences and revelations of black photographers. It was the culmination of thirty years of research, through which she unearthed aspects of American history that had been intentionally hidden and overshadowed by mainstream culture. The fact that African Americans were on the cutting edge of art, science, and technology, creating photographs from the moment the medium was invented—almost three decades before the end of slavery—forces us to reimagine and rethink everything we were taught about black history.

cover of Audre Lorde, The Black Unicorn, 197

Cover of Audre Lorde, The Black Unicorn, 1978

Audre Lorde, The Black Unicorn, 1978
I have always been drawn to intersectional and expansive expressions of “blackness.” In her own words, Audre Lorde was a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” You couldn’t just pick one to define her; she was all things, at all times, and more. My love for this work is best expressed in the final lines of her poem “A Litany for Survival.”

and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid

So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive

Anthony Barboza, The Founders of Kamoinge, 1973. Ming Smith pictured first row, second from left. Courtesy the artist and Schiffer Publishing

Anthony Barboza, The Founders of Kamoinge, 1973. Courtesy the artist and Schiffer Publishing

Kamoinge is a collective of African American photographers based in New York. Their name comes from a word in Kikuyu (an East African language) meaning “a group of people acting together”; since 1963, they have been doing just that. (Their work is collected in the 2015 book Timeless: Photographs by Kamoinge.) These artists have been a profound and pervasive influence in my life, from childhood to today. They do it for love.

Eve Arnold, Malcolm X, 1962

Eve Arnold, Malcolm X, 1962 © Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 1965
No other book has shaped the way I understand human experience like this one. Malcolm X is perhaps best known for his “militancy” and opposition to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s commitment to nonviolence in the civil rights movement, but this is a gross reduction of his life and work. What I love most about the autobiography is that in it, we watch Malcolm redefine himself completely, continually willing to evolve his ideas regardless of the risk. The most revolutionary thing a person can do is to be open to change.

Jim Goldberg, Rich and Poor, 1985
This project is ultimately about vulnerability. There are few books that speak so genuinely to issues of class, race, and gender in American society. Before I encountered this book, I had never seen a photographic project where the subjects critiqued the images and themselves, speaking both to the photographer and to viewers.

James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948–1985, 1985
A person is more important than anything else. That’s the bottom line.

Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, 2000
This book became the manifesto for the work that I was doing about the corporatization of our lives. We are the first generation of humans whose lives are defined more by commodities than anything else. How did this come to be? How do we make sense of this, and what are we to do with this information?

DVD cover of Marlon Riggs, Black Is … Black Ain’t, 1995

DVD cover of Marlon Riggs, Black Is … Black Ain’t, 1995. Courtesy Signifyin’ Works

Marlon Riggs, Black Is … Black Ain’t, 1994
Along with Ethnic Notions (1987) and Tongues Untied (1989), this film by Marlon Riggs is the perfect merger of art, documentary, and activism. His films look at identity, intersectionality, and “postblackness” in ways that were, at the time of their making, groundbreaking and incredibly prescient. In the twenty-first century, we are still just beginning to address and understand what Riggs already knew then.

Stephanie Black, Life and Debt, 2001
This film gave me a foundation for understanding the ongoing devastating effects of slavery and colonialism, globalization and corporatization. We are often led to believe that “developing” countries are backward or just can’t get it right, while the truth is that “developed” countries (aka “mythmakers”) are still cheating, while also reaping the benefits of centuries of exploitation; the deck is stacked in their favor.
The odds for equality are slim.

The Watts Prophets, Rappin’ Black in a White World, 1971
Along with Gil Scott-Heron, Oscar Brown, Jr., and the Last Poets, the Watts Prophets are among the unsung pioneers of hip-hop. What I love about this album is how unafraid they were to speak truth to power and to express the rage of the beautiful struggle and their distaste for injustice.

Daniel Breaker and Eisa Davis in Passing Strange, 2007. Photograph by Sara Krulwich

Daniel Breaker and Eisa Davis in Passing Strange, 2007. Photograph by Sara Krulwich. Courtesy Sara Krulwich/The New York Times/Redux

Stew and Heidi Rodewald, Passing Strange, 2008
Yes, this is a musical. I saw it three times on stage and the film version five times. Every time I make anything, I want it to make people feel the way this piece made me feel when I first saw it. A lyric from the songbook: “What’s inside is just a lie. / Ideas are dependable, there’s a new one every week. / Emotions are expendable because they aren’t unique.”

Still from John Carpenter, They Live, 1988

Still from John Carpenter, They Live, 1988. Courtesy Universal Studios Licensing LLC

John Carpenter, They Live, 1988
No movie has had a greater impression on me. Yes, a Hollywood movie featuring pro wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and Keith David, in which they expose that aliens have been embedding subliminal messages in advertisements, turning us all into mindless consumers. “The Golden Rule: He who has the gold, makes the rules.”It opened my twelve-year-old mind to the ways consumerism and advertising create a culture of alienation, something I’ve been thinking about pretty much ever since.

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